Giving the arts a stronger voice | Raphael Vella

Malta’s arts scene appears to be going through a revival in the wake of V18. But artist and curator Raphel Vella – who, with Bettina Hutschek, curated the Malta Pavilion at the Venice Biennale 2017 – cautions against over-dependence on government funding

2017 was the first time Malta participated in the Venice Biennale since 1999; and before that, the last time was in 1958. What was it like to take on such a daunting project?

It was also the first time we had a proper ‘Malta Pavilion’: and a very big one, too, around 300 square metres. Our presence in previous editions was on a smaller scale. Naturally, that represents a big improvement; but at the same time, it’s also a huge challenge. It’s a bit intimidating, in fact; especially when you take into account that the budget, by Venice standards, is not that big. By Maltese standards, it’s good... and there are other countries which are comparable to us in that respect. But when you start comparing with bigger European countries, it’s hard to really compete. Not in terms of budget, anyway. Luckily, however, there’s more to it than how much money you spend. Or at least, I hope so...

At the same time, Malta does seem to be investing more in the arts today than in previous years (when we didn’t participate in such events at all). How do you account for this renewed interest precisely now?

Part of it is due to pressure by the Arts Council itself. By ‘pressure’, I mean pointing out that ‘this [the Biennale] has to happen – we have to be on the global map’. And I also think there has been a movement, in recent years, towards a greater internationalisation of the local cultural sphere.

On a political level, there has been cognisance that, if we want to really be part of the global cultural game, we can’t continue playing this game in a very isolated way. To name one example where I was involved myself: in a few weeks’ time, there will be the fifth edition of the Malta Curatorial School, where we invite international curators to come to Malta. I think it would not be an exaggeration to say that, before this started, most international curators didn’t even know that Malta had a contemporary arts scene. I would go to Venice, and people would ask: “You actually do contemporary art in Malta? Don’t you spend all your time sipping cocktails on the beach?” There was this perception of Malta as an exotic, almost ‘Caribbean’ country. In a way, we had to break that stereotype; and the only way to do that is to invite them here, but also to export something of our own overseas; and to make sure this ‘something’ doesn’t remain ‘our own’, only in the most insular or nationalistic way possible.

Art is not there to make us ‘happy’. It is also supposed to bring out the conflicts within us, to make us aware of them... not to sweep them all under the carpet

And yet, traditionally it has always been hard to define what, artistically, can be defined as ‘our own’. Was this part of the idea behind the chosen title of the Malta Pavilion, ‘Homo melitensis’?

One change we have experienced, in the Biennale as a whole, is that the ‘national pavilion’ is no longer necessarily dominated by national artists. You find national pavilions where an artist representing a certain country wouldn’t even come from that country. Something we introduced in our own pavilion was, in fact, to feature artists who are not based in Malta; who might not even have Maltese citizenship. They will have a link to Malta: for simplicity’s sake, we refer to them as ‘diaspora artists’; from Australia, or based in London, or somewhere else. But the idea behind ‘Homo melitensis’ was also partly tongue-in-cheek. We started looking at how nations look at themselves, but also how things in general tend to get classified or defined. It’s a play on the notion that there is this very strict – even biological – way of classifying nationalities into ‘subspecies’ of the human genus, so to speak. For us, it was a joke, up to a point. Are we so ‘special’, that we are afraid to mix with others... or scared of immigrants, because we think they might destroy the so-called ‘purity’ of Maltese culture: our race, our language, and so on? And if we really were to be ‘destroyed’... then what would the world have lost? That’s the question we were asking, really. So we started to classify – as I said, in a very tongue-in-cheek way – what the Maltese are. We decided to go for a subtle, more ironic approach, where you exaggerate the sense of national identity so much, that it becomes ‘absurd’ or ‘nonsense’. And through the nonsense, we understand that it doesn’t, in fact, really make much ‘sense’. People are changing all the time. My father was very different from what I am today, even though he was Maltese, and I am Maltese as well. There’s no tragedy in that: to be ‘Maltese’ is a work in progress, at the end of the day.

There does, however, seem to be a renewed interest in the Maltese arts scene at both local and international levels. EU membership, for instance, has opened up new avenues of funding, new markets for local artistic products, etc. How has all this impacted the scene itself?

Malta has definitely become part of a global possibility of expanding one’s artistic horizons, and even one’s own artistic career. Increased funding for culture is one of the most significant improvements we’ve seen in recent years. Many people who work in the arts, do so on a freelance basis; they will be fishing around for funds everywhere. It’s no longer a small local pond, where you might, if lucky, land something to work for the next six months or one year. Now, your fishing pond is the entire world. And there’s also a political aspect to it. One other recent change we’ve seen is an interest in any kind of artistic project that has a social dimension: i.e., art that is not simply a case of self-expression, where the artist works in a studio, alone in front of the canvas. Lately, we’ve seen that funding is very often attached to the possibility of linking your project to a larger communal goal:  getting people on board, perhaps involving them in the production of the work... or at least, to participate in an interactive way, as opposed to
passively appreciating the piece. And I think, in principle, that’s a good thing. We’ve seen this in quite a number of projects, even at V18; but it is also part of the evaluation scheme which the Arts Council has adopted in recent years. Most of these projects will have a social dimension attached to the funding criteria.

You say it’s a ‘good thing’, but isn’t there also a danger in that form of approach? If arts funding is linked to a political agenda – however commendable, in theory – doesn’t it also mean that art gets channelled in directions into political directions?

There is a danger, certainly. Artists are becoming increasingly dependent on government funding, and this could lead to a silencing of dissent. The fact that the ‘social dimension’ is being presented as a ‘democratic participation in cultural life in Malta’, also has a political agenda attached to it. If we’re not careful, artists run the risk of becoming promoters of government’s political agenda. It’s a real risk. I don’t want to shoot down the social dimension, because it would be like throwing the baby out with the bathwater. The ‘baby’, in itself, is a positive thing. But sometimes you get to a point where you’re actually playing a game to please the funders. And the funder, in this case, is often the government. Government has become very strong in this field. So, it’s a double-edged sword. On one hand, it is positive that government is funding the arts; but on the other, we seem to have lost a certain amount of grassroots activity that might have existed some 20 years ago. Back then, artists still did things for no money... because there was no money to be had: the Arts Council didn’t exist yet. The Department of Culture might put up LM150 for an exhibition, that could take a year to produce... and even then, it would have to be shared by around 20 artists. That was the reality. But things still happened; there was a level of grassroots activity that also enjoyed a sense of ‘freedom’... though I admit it might not be the right word...

Artists are becoming increasingly dependent on government funding, and this could lead to a silencing of dissent

If I may suggest another: the sort of art you’re talking about may have been more ‘subversive’. Up to a point, art is also expected to challenge preconceived notions, to draw people out of their comfort zones, and so on. If I’m understanding correctly, this is not happening as
much anymore...

Yes. Especially because, in the local scenario – and I have to say this – practically all cultural entities are headed by political appointees. The policy itself already seems to favour this populist, social dimension approach... for instance, by encouraging work that communicates its meaning to as wide a sector of the public as possible... and that, in itself, can become dangerous. What if you have an artist whose work needs to be difficult? Or needs to create tension with its public? I think that sense of tension is important. We shouldn’t have a situation where everyone works in a false sense of harmony.... where everyone ‘participates’, so everyone comes out ‘happy’ as a result. Art is not there to make us ‘happy’. It is also supposed to bring out the conflicts within us, to make us aware of them... not to sweep them all under the carpet. Now, when you have this sort of scenario in a context where everyone ‘at the top’, so to speak, is a political appointee... whose job, ultimately, is to please his or her authorities, because they put him or her there...decisions can end up favouring politicians rather than artists. Often, such appointees would not have the qualification to deserve that position. They might have other qualifications; like – it has to be said – voting for the right party... but no qualifications of an artistic nature. When you put all that together, it could, potentially, intrude on the running of the entity and real artistic development. The consideration for such appointees becomes: “Why are we putting on this play, when it’s so ‘controversial’? Why are we including that video in our international exhibition, when it features Maltese swearing? We want to portray a different picture of ourselves to the world.” These are not artistic considerations. They’re ultimately political considerations...

There is, however, an irony in all this. A few years ago, we had a play [Stitching] banned from Malta because it was too ‘controversial’; we had an author and publisher taken to court over an ‘obscene’ short story; but what you’re now describing is taking place under a different administration which, among other things, has removed censorship from the statute books... how do you account for this paradox?

When I said ‘there’s a risk’, I didn’t mean that it’s happening all the time. I think that [government] is seeing the potential of the arts in different ways. I’m not trying to suggest that government is only looking at it from a very restrictive, utilitarian angle. It’s not only that. But then, certain things have already happened to make us aware of the danger. There were highly qualified appointees to the V18 committee who were removed from their positions, for instance. I was one of the first to say that was a bad decision. And I still think that way. So yes, you do have to scratch your head, and ask yourself: why? Why is culture dominated by people who are passionate about a political party rather than about the arts? And there are cases of interference: no doubt about it.

When talking about ‘dependence on government funding’, another reality swims into view. There doesn’t seem to be very much choice. Unlike other countries, Malta’s commercial/business sector does not seem to respond to the allure of investing in the arts. Do you agree? What sort of private avenues for arts funding – if any – exist in Malta?

I think, first of all, that even this sector is improving. There are more galleries opening, for instance. It’s still relatively small, but I think the potential is being perceived more now, even if just in the last five years. You are certainly right, though, that 20 years ago no one would have dreamed of investing in the arts. Speaking for myself: even I knew, as a teenager, that I would have to make a living for myself, and that art was not going to help me get my daily bread and butter. Not in Malta, at any rate. That mentality still exists today; I see it with young artists; with their parents who sometimes talk to me at University. They remain unconvinced. But things are slowly changing. I really do hope, however, that we will see more artist-led, grassroots projects that do not depend so much on government funding. Apart from the risk I mentioned earlier, it would also give artists a stronger voice.